2020 proved that progress was not linear, at least not for the Clippers. They began the calendar year as championship contenders and end the year in the same position, arguably a stronger title threat now than before. But the fact remains that the Clippers are still contenders, not champions, and this year humbled them.
Here are the moments that defined the year for the L.A. Clippers.
Jan. 4: The Clippers get blown out by Memphis on their home court, and talk of chemistry issues begins
In their second game of the year, the Clippers (absent Paul George, but still featuring Kawhi Leonard) were absolutely obliterated by the 14-22 Grizzlies at Staples Center during an infamous weekend afternoon game. The Clippers were lifeless, which wasn’t notable in and of itself, but the postgame conversation got heated. Montrezl Harrell said that they weren’t a great team despite preseason proclamations, and Doc Rivers angrily rejected any comparisons to the heart of the previous year’s group, considering all that team had done was lose in the first round of the playoffs.
The Clippers won 11 of their next 14 games and once again looked the part of an elite team in the league, but the chemistry concerns never really went away.
Feb 16: Kawhi Leonard wins the Kobe Bryant All-Star MVP
Leonard hasn’t always shown the most interest in the All-Star Game. In 2017, a year he earned first-team all-NBA honors, he took all of four shots in the midseason exhibition, scoring just four points.
This year clearly meant something to Leonard. He was the sole face of the Clippers at the All-Star Game and he was competing for an honor — the MVP trophy — named after one of his favorite players of all time and one of his role models. That meant Leonard was engaged from start to finish to earn the win, and he realized after his first two made shots that the most valuable distinction was also in reach. Leonard said that he didn’t have the words to explain how happy he was to have a trophy with Bryant’s name on it.
Leonard also proved that among the best of the best, he still stood atop the rest of the league after winning Finals MVP the prior year. Make no mistake, this was a competitive All-Star Game, and Leonard’s fingerprints were all over the victorious effort.
March 5: The Clippers go to Houston and wax another Western Conference playoff team
It took a few weeks after the trade deadline, but the Clippers were looking formidable heading into the home stretch of the regular season. With Marcus Morris Sr. and a hot-shooting Reggie Jackson in tow, the Clippers had a 10-man rotation better than any in the NBA. They smoked Denver (a contender for the West no. 2 seed) at home the prior Friday, went in Oklahoma City and took care of the Thunder, and then absolutely pummeled the center-less Rockets by staying big the entire game. When their full roster was healthy, the Clippers hadn’t been beat.
Not only was their offense unstoppable with multiple volume scorers and 3-point shooters on the floor at all times, but their defensive potential had finally been realized. Two all-world wing defenders combined with the pesky Patrick Beverley and the immovable Ivica Zubac made the Clippers a nightmare on both ends of the court. This was the peak of the 2019-20 Clippers. Unfortunately, the season was about to come to a pause.
March 11: The NBA season is suspended indefinitely
It feels all like all of our lives changed forever on this day, and the Clippers were no different. A championship pursuit was put on hold. The team that emerged from the hiatus wasn’t even close to the same.
July 17: Montrezl Harrell leaves the bubble to be with his grandmother
At this point, the Clippers were already without Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams, who had each left the bubble for personal reasons. Beverley couldn’t quite get over the interruption to his restart preparation and suffered a calf injury when he got back on the court, one that lingered through the postseason. Williams went to Magic City while he was away from Orlando, resulting in a longer quarantine and some hard feelings about his decision-making. Harrell spent the longest time away from the team and had to make his debut during the playoffs. His conditioning wasn’t right when he returned, but more importantly, he couldn’t play through his broken heart from the loss of his grandmother.
The Clippers were also without Morris, Zubac, and Landry Shamet for much of the scrimmage phase of the bubble, as the latter two confirmed to test positive for the coronavirus. A team that had just begun to collectively figure itself out now once again had to deal with missing pieces.
Aug. 26: The NBA goes on strike to protest the police shootings of unarmed Black people
There was an undercurrent of social justice throughout the entire NBA bubble after the killing of George Floyd in May. Players wore messaging on their warmup shirts and jerseys and placed it on the court itself. But the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. prompted the Milwaukee Bucks to refuse to take the court in solidarity with a Black man from their community. The rest of the teams followed suit over the next few days. In doing so, the players ensured that the league would commit to more tangible actions in the pursuit of social justice, including pledging more money to Black businesses and opening up the majority of NBA arenas around the country as vote centers.
Doc Rivers gave an emotional speech after the shooting about what it meant to him to be a Black man in America. It was his last great act as the Clippers head coach.
“We keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.”— ESPN (@espn) August 26, 2020
Doc Rivers got emotional while talking about Jacob Blake being shot by police and social injustice. pic.twitter.com/qQI2Ld2DGI
Sept. 15: The Clippers lose Game 7 to the Nuggets, once again failing to make the conference finals
A season that seemed destined for greatest instead came up woefully short, as the Clippers surrendered a 3-1 lead to Denver to miss out on the franchise’s first trip to the conference finals. The script of the last three games became all too predictable as the Clippers repeatedly gave up double-digit leads to a team with more fight and more joy.
Rather than write off the results of the playoffs due to the unprecedented nature of the bubble, the Clippers would instead make meaningful changes to their roster for the subsequent season.
Rivers’ departure wasn’t framed as a firing at the time out of respect to the outgoing head caoch, but that’s what happened. Two blown 3-1 leads and a failure to advance to the conference finals over seven seasons meant that Rivers could not stay as the head coach in Los Angeles any longer.
In his place, the Clippers went with a coach who has experience in pressure-packed situations and who has found a way to adapt to whatever curveballs are thrown his way. Those qualities are particularly relevant for this NBA season. Lue has already proven that he can get the Clippers to buy in to his system and that he can leverage the strengths of the entire roster rather than rely on individual brilliance to carry the rest of the team along.
The Clippers needed a fresh face to lead this organization into its next phase. They landed on one of the brightest minds in the league, and at age 43, he could be at the helm of this team for many years to come.
Nov. 21: The Clippers agree to terms with Serge Ibaka
Nov. 29: Nic Batum is waived by the Hornets, agrees to join the Clippers
At the end of the playoffs, Leonard said that the Clippers needed to become a smarter, higher-IQ basketball team that had a better understanding of how to play the game. They got two of those players in free agency with Serge Ibaka and Nic Batum, even if that meant losing both Harrell and JaMychal Green. Batum and Ibaka have been seamless fits with the Clippers thus far and give the team two more two-way players for their postseason run. It’s early, but it’s hard not to be excited about their contributions, especially because their track record of success makes this level of production feel sustainable.
The Clippers obviously don’t want to repeat the beats of their 2019-20 season, but starting the season off on a high note is always a good thing. After an offseason when everyone was quick to anoint the Lakers as favorites to repeat their title, the Clippers delivered a swift reminder that they were the Lakers’ toughest challenger a year ago, and they’re probably better now.
It’s a new season, and the Clippers have done their best to rid themselves of the baggage of the past year. May we all have that same strength.